UAE-based Malayalam film 'Meow' a tribute to Arab world

Film brings a new perspective to the lives of expatriate Malayalis in the Gulf, says Archie R

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Published: Wed 22 Dec 2021, 6:30 PM

It is said the first known word for a cat’s meow comes from Arabic- the word ‘mau’ from ancient Egypt, meaning cat.

Not too surprising then that Meow, the Malayalam movie, directed by the veteran hitmaker Lal Jose and written by Dr. Iqbal Kuttippuram also pays tribute to the Arab world.

Lal’s salutation to the country he calls second home is shaped by providence too. It started with location scouting for Meow, his third film shot almost entirely in the UAE after the super-hit films, Arabikatha and Diamond Necklace, both penned by Dr. Iqbal, a homeopath based in Dubai.

“We had planned to shoot the film in Fujairah initially. Our search for an old Toyota car led us to a kind Emirati, Ibrahim Abdulla Al Namreed Al Shahih. He opened locales that were unseen in Ras Al Khaimah, which were a perfect fit for our story,” said Lal.

Ibrahim, sadly, passed away last month after a fight with cancer. “It was as if God brought him to us to help us make this film.”

Providence also played a role during production as Ras Al Khaimah entered a prolonged lockdown just right after the shooting was completed. Lal, however, has also been keen to pay back to the community for all the support he received.

The film has one of the largest line-ups of emerging creative professionals and local talent – both actors and crew: From music composer Justin Varghese to first-time cinematography by skilled editor Ajmal Sabu, lyricist Suhail Koya, to art director Ajay Mangad, actors Asha Madathil Sreekanth and Arun Kumar, and associate director Jomet Joy, among others.

A director who has mapped the mindscape of expatriate Malayalis through his two earlier films, Lal says Meow has a different milieu.

“If Arabikatha was about the workers and Diamond Necklace was about the rich, savvy Malayalis living here, Meow is rooted in the bittersweet lives of the large pool of middle-class people,” said Lal.

Living away from the bustle of big cities, some sharing a villa with five or six families, their aspirations and frustrations are documented through the life of Dasthakeer, a small-town supermarket owner, played by Soubin Shahir. Over a period of 16 years, the film charts his marital life with Sulu (Mamta Mohandas) and three children, until a tryst with a cat transforms Dasthakeer.

A filmmaker who draws on his milieu for his films, Lal said Meow will resonate with all because of its emotional quotient – drawn from the silly nothings in everyday life.

Taking the middle path

Dr. Iqbal Kuttippuram, the writer of Meow, is one of the UAE’s own.

A homeopath, who runs his own practice in Dubai, Dr. Iqbal is credited with two of the defining Malayalam films that documented the lives of Malayalis, without taking recourse to the two more common tropes – melancholic tales of the self-sacrificing expatriate or the action-crazy superheroes who make a killing in the city.

Meow, he said, was a story that had been in his mind for years now.

“It is about people, who probably were seen as the most promising while they were in college, but end up doing mundane work that weighs them down. It is also about people who live on meagre salaries but do more for their families than those who earn five-figure pays.”

His hero, Dasthakeer, is one such man. A hero at college, he transforms from this vibrant, dashing left-leaning student leader, to a devout man, who is eking out an existence by running a small supermarket.

It is ‘super-market’ in name though and he harbours dreams of making it big like illustrious business leaders.

“But Meow fell in place when two other elements came through,” said Dr. Iqbal. “A cat and an Azerbaijan girl, both playing important roles in the film.”

He said the UAE offers the opportunity to bring such multicultural talents to film, much like how the heroine of Arabikatha was Chinese.

His own challenge was to ensure that Meow is nothing like his earlier two films set in the UAE.

“While taking on what may be seen as marginalised people, who do not live flashy lives, the film is breezy,” said Dr. Iqbal. “It is not about telling a story as it is but in putting in layers that people anywhere can relate with.”

In Save the Cat, the seminal book on screenwriting, Blake Synder writes: “The’ Save the Cat’ scene is where we meet the hero and the hero does something, like saving a cat, that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.

In Meow, Dr. Iqbal captures that moment – not through the hero, but with a cat.

“That makes the title and the film’s message, if you may call so, relevant to the times we live in.”

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